Writing A Cover Letter To Literary Agent

You want to know what a query letter should look like? Well, here’s an sample one below.

Just before we look at it, I should say that I am a real author describing a real book – and I already have an agent. So the letter which follows simply pretends that this book is a first novel and I have no track record in the industry.

The second thing to say is that I’ve assumed the agent has allowed to me to send a synopsis and opening chapters along with the query letter. (That’s standard practice in the UK, though things can be different in the US.) But obviously you need to check what the agent’s requirements are and follow them.

Third, this letter does NOT say anywhere, ‘I love Mr Angus Author, whom you represent, so I felt that your tastes and mine might have something in common.’ If you want to put that in you can. I’ve got mixed feelings about whether it’s helpful. (Most literary agents represent 2-3 well known clients and a huge chunk of their query letters will reference those 2-3 authors. It’s therefore questionable whether you do anything positive by doing likewise. Agents tend to vary in what they think about these kind of personalisations. I tend to recommend the lower effort option, but it’s no big deal. You can do as you please.)

OK. That’s enough preamble. If I were a total newbie, I’d probably write something like the following:

Dear Amy Agent

I’m writing to seek representation for my first novel, TALKING TO THE DEAD, a police procedural of 115,000 words.

The book opens with news of a murder: a young woman and her daughter have been found dead in a rough area of Cardiff. The house where they’re found is in very poor condition – a squat, with no power or working toilet – yet in the corner of the room is a platinum bank card belonging to a local millionaire. A millionaire who died in a plane crash some nine months previously.

Puzzling as this crime looks, it’s not the heart of the book’s mystery. It becomes rapidly clear that Fiona Griffiths herself is a very peculiar woman, who is withholding crucial secrets from the reader. Who exactly is her father? What was her childhood illness? And what is it with her and corpses?

I’m a [thirty-five year old lion tamer] and this is my first novel.

I enclose the first three chapters and a synopsis. I very much hope you like what you see and look forward to hearing from you.

Yours,

Wrichard Writer

There! Simple, no?All the letter actually has to do is:

  • give a very brief 1-sentence summary of the book
  • a somewhat longer, 1-2 para, introduction to the book. (Not a plot summary – that’s for the synopsis)
  • a brief introduction to you
  • not be badly written

If you achieve those things, then the literary agent will turn with curiosity to your manuscript. That’s all you can hope for at this stage – the rest is down to your novel.

Oh, and if you get rejected 10 or more times, then don’t start stressing about your letter, or your synopsis or your star sign or anything else. You are being rejected because your book is not yet strong enough for commercial publication. That’s no big deal. All pro authors had to learn the game too. If you want to improve your manuscript (and you should want nothing more urgently than that), then get some tough honest feedback from a professional editor. Pro authors get exactly that (for free, from their publishers). You’ll need to pay, but you need the same service, the same devastatingly accurate insight. Novel writing ain’t easy – and getting help does pay.

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You've finished your manuscript and you've made the decision to look for a literary agent. Make sure your query letter makes the right impression with this selection of articles on agent submissions and what not to do.

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